MANATEE COUNTY (WFLA) – The Florida Commission on Ethics is moving forward with complaints against Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh. 8 On Your Side has obtained documents from the ongoing investigation that were sealed from the public up until this week.
The commission received 18 separate complaints against the commissioner earlier this year. She has been under fire for her involvement in organizing an exclusive vaccine clinic in Lakewood Ranch.
Residents and other members of the public have argued that Baugh violated her oath of office when she bypassed the county’s random vaccine waiting pool, put in place to give everyone an equal shot at getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
The state-run clinic was limited to residents in two zip codes selected by Baugh, both within her district. Baugh is also accused of creating a ‘VIP list’ of five people to receive the shot at the February clinic, including herself.
In a written respsonse to the complaints filed against her, Baugh’s attorney George Levesque argued she “did not convey a disproportionate beenfit for herself of a special private benefit to anyone that was not also available at that time to every person over the age of 65 years old and other eligible individuals. The vaccines were made available by the government to all eligible individuals”.
“No one can reasonably argue that they were deprived of receiving the vaccine as a result of [Baugh’s] request,” he continued on.
During a closed meeting before the ethics commission in Tallahassee Friday, Levesque also had this to say.
“In February 2021, Manatee County had the second-lowest senior vaccination penetration rate in the state. After the event when they distributed 3200 vaccines, their vaccination rate was 35% for that population. 28% of the population in Manatee County are seniors… In those two ZIP Codes, it is 35%. If you were trying to increase the senior vaccination penetration, go to where the seniors are. That just makes logical sense. There was no abuse of power, there was no law that was violated for doing that,” said Leveque. “In hindsight, I know Commissioner Baugh would probably do things differently, but that doesn’t mean that she did things corruptly,” he said. “At the end of the day, there was no law that was violated. Everybody could get the vaccine if they wanted to. There was no disproportionate benefit by what occurred and for those reasons, there is no probable cause that Commissioner Baugh violated any law and we don’t think the commission should find probable cause,” he argued.
In the end, the majority of the ethics commission disagreed with Levesque’s arguements.
“Here we have a commissioner who looked at a list and [said] why is my name not on it? Make sure my name is on it, make sure the names of these people are on it. That is what we don’t want public officials to do. That is the last picture that we want to paint of a public official. If that is not seeking a disproportionate benefit for yourself at a time of a public health crisis, frankly I don’t know what is,” said ethics Commissioner Don Gaetz. “We should not say this is OK, this doesn’t trouble us, this is not a violation. I think we should say this was wrong,” he continued.
Since the commission found probable cause that Baugh violated her oath of office, the ethics investigation will now enter its next phase. Baugh could face penalties up to $10,000 per allegation. It is also possible she could be suspended or removed from office.